Today's poem is by Charles Martin


A few drops in a hollow ring,
Or even less on a hatpin,
Gave peace to Emperor or King
      When the Guard had fled,
And torch lit foes were gathering
      Around his bed;

This was the cure for life's disease:
Observe how mindful Socrates
Drinks down the hemlock to the lees;
      Watch Charmian clasp
Her ardent mistress by the knees
      As she takes the asp.

For others, an unsought egress:
Many an ogre and ogress,
Whose motto was "Only aggress!"
      Were shown the door
(Some regarding this as Progress)
      By hellebore.

Nero, unhappy in his station,
Found poison won him swift promotion:
See Claudius, eschewing caution,
      Greedily entreat a
Servant for yet another portion
      Of the Amanita.

Secure inside his thickset walls
The tyrant ages and appalls;
Does no one hear his panicked calls
      Throughout the palace?
Another king whose kingdom falls
      To digitalis.

The rise of the middle class occurred
When all those kings had disappeared,
And tightlipped spouses, vexed or bored,
      Learned of the kick
That oatmeal has, on being stirred
      With arsenic.

And still to be found, till recently,
In the clandestine armory
of CIA and KGB,
      Was cyanide,
Used to dispatch an enemy
      Or for suicide.

No agent's training was complete
Before he'd learned how to secrete
Upon himself the bittersweet
      End of his mission;
The little pill that, swallowed neat,
      Ensured discretion.

How innocent such poisons now
Appear to us, for even though
Fatal, they were (no matter how
      Grimly horrific)
Local anesthetics, thorough-
      ly site specific:

A dose intended for the Master
Might have dispatched his dog or taster,
But our poisons yield disaster
      Without distinction,
And on a scale so much vaster,
      That our extinction

Appears to be quite plausible:
A momentary lapse, a spill,
And the stain spreads, insensible
      To our lot;
Or just consider, if you will,
      The microdot

Of some designer pathogen,
Dripped from the tip of a counterfeit pen
Or someone's nose: less "if" than "when,"
      When you think about it,
An end that unlike hell or heaven,
      Cannot be doubted,

And which replaces God and Devil,
Those outworn fictions, with a novel
Point of departure and arrival
      For humankind,
One with no need for the survival
      Of projective Mind

To speculate on what space is,
Or what we are. Us it erases
Without disturbing Gaia's stasis
      Or all we have wrought,
The slowly evanescing traces
      Of one dark thought.

Copyright © 2004 Charles Martin All rights reserved
from Southwest Review
Reprinted by Verse Daily® with permission

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